In response to the pandemic and the loss of work by Maine artists, Portland Ovations has launched a new program to commission five Maine artists and a museum to create five new performance pieces, which will roll out with full productions over three seasons of Portland Ovations’ events.

Mary Allen Lindemann, who chairs the Portland Ovations board, and Aimee Petrin, the organization’s executive and artistic director, announced the effort this week. All artists chosen to participate in the program are artists of diversity and all will create work with a connection to home and Maine.

The artists include playwright Dee Clarke, theater artists Kerem Durdag and Andy Happel, musician and storyteller Samuel James and dancer Riley Watts. In addition, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor will partner with Portland Ovations to present staged versions of Wabanaki stories for schools and families.

Musician and storyteller Samuel James. Photo by Michael Dinneen, courtesy of Portland Ovations

Clarke’s theater project is “The Last Girl,” which is based on her testimony to the Maine Human Rights Commission about her personal experience of being trafficked for sex. Durdag – best known as the president and CEO of the broadband provider GWI – and Happel will create “The Immigrant – A Story,” a musical theater piece about first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States. James will explore his family roots in Maine and Texas, while Watts will pursue a piece about creating work together at a time when people can’t be together in the same space.

Lindemann said the commissioning program is a direct result of the pandemic. “We looked at this as an opportunity to show, not just locally but nationally and internationally, the brilliance of the work being done here,” she said.

The effort expands Portland Ovations’ history of commissioning new work by artists from Maine and elsewhere. In recent years, the organization commissioned Portland composer Daniel Sonenberg to write the opera “The Summer King,” which has had productions in Pittsburgh and Detroit, as well dance performances by Sara Juli, new music by the late Elliott Schwartz and others. “What is new is that we are investing in a number of artists at one time to really show the fullness of artistry and the brilliance of work here in Maine,” Petrin said.

Portland Ovations is spending about $30,000 from its Catalyst Fund for the project. The money will be paid in the spring when the work is developed. Beginning Jan. 11, over the course of a week, Portland Ovations will host “New Works, New Year,” a series of five 30-minute virtual events to introduce the artists and their projects. In the spring, the artists will make public work-in-progress presentations.

The Maine Office of Tourism recently awarded an Enterprise Marketing Grant to Portland Ovations to promote the project out of state to present Maine as a place of creativity, Petrin said.

James, who is biracial, praised the project for highlighting the diversity of Maine artists and for Portland Ovations for providing the platform. When people in the world think of Maine artists, they usually do not think of people “who look like me,” James said, even though the Maine side of his family settled here before Maine became a state. “When we think about art, the thing we miss a lot of times, the most beautiful, most expressive, most effective art comes from the most oppressed people, and art itself is a political statement, even though we like to think it’s just pretty colors sometimes.”

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